By Paul Goat Allen
In 2020, Brian James Gage exploded onto the genre fiction scene with The Sleepwalker, an epic alternate history blending horror, occult fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction set largely in 1916 Saint Petersburg during the reign of Nicholas II. Featuring a cast of nightmarish monstrosities, witches, badass vampire hunters, blood cults, armies of giant bats, and so much more, Gage’s novel garnered critical acclaim from numerous outlets.
With the second installment of his Nosferatu Conspiracy—entitled The Sommelier—due to be released in March, Gage talked with BlueInk about how exactly he went about taking a story he had been working on for decades, and that had been rejected by numerous agents, and turned it into a commercial and critical success. (This interview has been edited for length.)
BIR: So, Brian, first off, I want to thank you for agreeing to do the interview. I’ve wanted to talk with you since 2020, when The Sleepwalker was released. I have so many questions…
BJG: It’s my pleasure. I’m just happy to be discussing my work with someone other than the invisible monsters in my head for a change. I’m a bit of a recluse these days. I spend all this time alone in a room working on these books, so this phase of the release is always a bit of fresh air.
BIR: Let’s talk about the genre-hybridization element of your series, which in my mind is a huge selling point. As a longtime reviewer, I’ve seen a meteoric rise not only in the quantity of these kinds of novels but also the quality… Can you tell me a little bit about the initial inspiration behind writing such a grand-scale and creatively courageous narrative?
BJG: … I’m a massive fan of the genre-hybrid myself and very much appreciate your articles on it as I think it deserves far more recognition as not only an emerging trend, but one that’s here to stay. I happen to believe that readers are bored stiff with basic tropes and crave genre-blending narratives in the hopes to discover something fresh.
As far as my inspiration? I’d hate to disappoint anyone, but honestly—’80s cinema. Well, cinema in general is where I draw my greatest inspirations from and generally think of my scenes when I’m setting them up as movie sets…
I was basically a latchkey kid in the ’80s, and HBO and Cinemax were my babysitters, so I grew up loving everything from weird arty shit to popcorn films to just about any bad B-horror film you can name. So I think my developing mind was just awash with all kinds of random narrative structures from Kramer vs. Kramer to C.H.U.D., and I suppose when I sit down to write, I just like to think big. How far can I push something and still make it realistic? Then my wide body of interests and influences take over from there…
I generally hone a scene until I myself feel the emotion. For example, in the sequence where one character is trapped in an underground mine—I kept going with it until my own claustrophobia was triggered and I had to walk away from my keyboard for a spell. That’s when I felt I had it right. I figure if I can creep myself out—then the chances of a reader experiencing that emotion should be high…
One of the techniques that I’m trying to hone is this notion I call “punch-lining”—that is, I feel every chapter must end on either a character quote or narrative statement that engages the reader and compels them to keep reading. Basically, the technique is throwing a cliffhanger-esque ending to each chapter without having it feel forced or obvious…Some scenarios make it easier than others, but this is always my intention. I want readers to be excited about turning each and every page…
BIR: The first thing I asked myself after reading the first novel was “why isn’t this traditionally published?” It seemed to me back in 2020—and still does today—that this series would be a perfect fit in the current genre fiction landscape. Why self-publish?
BJG: Hey, that makes two of us! Although, I’ll admit I’m having a grand ole time doing this independently.
This is a long and windy tale that involves my first publisher going bankrupt just after two of my books were released, essentially leaving them to die on the vine, and then during the bankruptcy proceedings, losing the rights to my work with no real compensation (thankfully, they’re all out of print and the rights back into my possession again if I so choose to republish them). I don’t want to get too much into it as firstly, I’m over it, but secondly, I’m still friends with a few of the players, and I know everyone was trying their best under terrible circumstances. It was just a bummer that my early career was essentially derailed by the whole affair.
But I kept at it and decided I wanted to try my hand at my at horror. When I finished the working draft of The Sleepwalker in 2008, I was essentially told it wouldn’t work by three different agents I was collaborating with. They seemed to want more quirky social commentary books like the ones I did with Soft Skull Press, and I didn’t find that appealing any longer.
Horror is where my heart is, so I wrote The Sleepwalker and was promptly told it was “too gruesome to publish.” I don’t begrudge anyone for this. Agents can really only get behind projects they like and also know acquisition editors who will engage, and I think I was just working with people who didn’t really enjoy the horror genre or know where to place the novel. So at that point in time, I basically quit writing and moved on to other things. But year after year, I kept the 800+ page draft manuscript on the shelf next to my desk and it always bugged me that I didn’t finish it properly.
So in 2019, my New Year’s Resolution was to finish The Sleepwalker.
Basically, what spawned me to do this on my own once I completed it was firstly, just curiosity to see if I could pull it off. Secondarily, The Sleepwalker marked a 16-year gap from the last book I published with Soft Skull in 2004. So when I finally had The Sleepwalker where I liked it, I did some outreach to previous contacts and everyone had either moved on to different career paths, or I lost their contact info. So I was starting from scratch. In that 16-year gap, I also molded myself into an entrepreneur in a variety of fields and falling back into the slush-pile just seemed wholly unappealing, considering what I learned about being an independent marketer, etc. over the years. Business is business, as it were. And in the end, publishing is just another business.
As I sat down one day to write a query letter to an agency I felt would be a good fit, something inside me just felt limp and ashamed. It didn’t feel right on a deep instinctual level. Basically, I didn’t want to beg anyone to look over my manuscript then wait around another six months to a year to find an agent, go through the pitch cycle, etc…
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to meet and work with the right publisher on my novels. But I’m also not in the business of waiting around for that magical meeting or being held back as to when I can start sharing my stories with readers because someone else has those keys. Deep down, something was just nagging at me that this was the right move. So far, so good.
BIR: Can you talk a little about the process of putting out The Sleepwalker and The Sommelier as an indie author?
BJG: …I put just as much care and resources into ensuring my completed books are tip-top as I do writing them, and am extraordinarily lucky in who I met for my developmental editor. The great thing about our relationship is that I’m a maniac and love to see how far I can push things, and she’s a very tempered literary fiction editor who works with mainstream publishers and somehow happens to dig my dark sensibilities. But she’s great at letting me know when I’ve jumped the shark, which I think helps give the books a wider appeal and not just horror that appeals to genre-heads (respect to the genre-heads, as I am one of them).
For example, when I first came up with the idea for Elizabeth Báthroy’s form in the book, I thought it was too much and uncertain I could pull it off. But when my editor got back and was really excited about how wild and unexpected it was—well, then it gave me the confidence to really push it further with that character.
I can honestly tell you I love the production and marketing of a book as much as I love the writing. I find the beginning-to-end process quite illuminating. So until that magical meeting comes and I cross paths with a publisher or agent who is as into my novels as I am, then I will definitely keep at this on my own with pride in my heart and a bounce in my step.
BIR: What has been your biggest challenge as an indie author?
BJG: Sort of several fold. Firstly, after being traditionally published and switching to self-pubbing, there’s always that lingering and very incorrect notion among the public that self-pubbed books aren’t worthy. I mean most aren’t, but there are a good handful of self-produced authors these days who are putting out bangers completely independently and producing their books to a very professional level.
I feel this must be the new standard for any author wanting to go out on their own. Fight fire with fire—your aunt who’s a librarian and your cousin who knows Photoshop are not going to cut it as editor and cover designer…
[My second “gripe” is] that the publishing industry by-in-large is one of the only business sectors other than say tv/film acting where the entire structure is set up for people to fail…
This can be easily summed up by asking anyone to walk into a bookstore, take in all the books, name the famous authors you can off the top of your head, then look back to the sea of books and wonder what everyone else’s day job is…
And the other frustrating part … is a lot of review sites and literary mags do legitimately look down on self-published authors and won’t even consider the work for coverage or review.
This is changing. Kirkus and PW, for example, both have excellent programs for indie-authors, but I think a lot of more corporate entities need to catch up and begin to acknowledge the validity of strong voices professionally producing their books within the self -published realm. If your charter is to champion literature, then one should champion all literature, not just the spoils system of books from large houses with vast publicity budgets.
I find some of these firewalls to be borderline offensive. Filmmaker produces a great indie-film, she’s called an auteur; musician self-produces a great folk album—genius! Author self publishes an engaging novel—crickets…
An indie-author with a strong author platform can easily out-sell the mainstream publishing average of 3,000 books in its lifetime. I believe even 10,000 copies from a big press is considered a successfully outing these days. Throw in 70% royalties offered to indie-authors by Kindle and the like, and we can start to see a shift in the way books are produced and marketed…There are now entire ecosystems dedicated to helping indie-authors market and publicize their books…
I may seem flippant about it, but I do have a great deal of respect for these industry professionals and what a publisher can bring to the table. It’s the difference between a guerrilla outfit successfully staging a long-shot coup, and an army invading and occupying a nation… There are unicorn tales of self-pubbers blowing through 100k in units. I believe this will become more common in time as readers gravitate to new and unique voices overlooked by the mainstream system.
BIR: Yeah, I do agree with you for the most part—and that’s why I’ve been reviewing for BlueInk for the last 12 years. I want to be a part of that movement promoting noteworthy indie releases. And believe me—there are a ton of them out there and more being released every day. So, let’s talk about the other side of indie publishing. How fulfilling has the indie experience been?
BJG: Firstly, I really would like to commend you and the BlueInk team for what you are offering to indie-authors. Out of boredom, I often find myself studying business sectors, and I will say that your organization is at the very top for the support you give to emerging voices.
But how fulfilling? Very. Nothing really beats producing the exact book you intended to produce…
I see a lot of stuff in forums, etc. about indie-authors lamenting if they self-publish that they will be essentially blacklisted from working with a publisher or that the book is somehow toxic to editors. Firstly, I’d recommend to quit worrying about “what ifs” and focus on “what is”… Who do you want in charge of your future and your career? You? Or the immense firewall that exists between you and your potential readers? Harry Potter was rejected with prejudice umpteen times until finally someone took a chance on it. I think all authors should let that sink in when making their decision, and wonder if maybe it’s time to take a chance on themselves.
BIR: Just to go back to your statement about Harry Potter being rejected multiple times. That’s a commonplace occurrence—even for landmark titles—and has been for decades. Think about this:
• 16 literary agencies and 12 publishers rejected A Time to Kill, so John Grisham self-published it and sold copies out of the trunk of his car. After its modest print run of 5,000 quickly sells out, it gets picked up by a publisher and goes on to become a runaway bestseller. Grisham’s combined sales to date—250 million.
• Despite 14 consecutive agency rejections, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight goes on to sell 17 million copies and spends 91 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
• Dozens of agents passed on The Da Vinci Code. One gave the reason for rejecting the manuscript simply as “It is so badly written.” Brown finally got Doubleday to publish it. The Da Vinci Code went on to sell more than 80 million copies.
• After 23 rejections, Frank Herbert finally lands a publisher, Chilton—a publisher that specializes in auto manuals—and Dune becomes the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time.
• Guilty Pleasures, the first installment of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake saga, a series that triggered a Golden Age of Paranormal Fantasy for more than a decade and sold more than six million copies worldwide, was rejected more than 200 times.
I could go on and on—but there’s a big takeaway there. You can’t give up. You have to believe in your work and, one way or another, somehow get it in the hands of readers.
BJG: Absolutely. I do believe that agents and editors are merely trying their best, and I can’t actually say I’d do better in those positions and always pick the next winner. It comes down to economics (aka business)…
I used to feel a great sense of poison toward business and “the suits.” As an artist/author you’ve dreaded every minute at your day job, looking out the window and dreaming of your “big break” or fantasizing about a time when you might be able to sustain yourself doing what you love… But hear me out: there is power in understanding business machinations.
It can be quite illuminating and creatively fulfilling to master such things as in many ways business is simply a four-dimensional art project/puzzle: there are theatrics in business, fine art and design, sculpture, certainly public performance, and then the 4D element comes with the notion of being successful over time and the ability to shift your decision making as the landscapes change. I would suggest authors try and embrace this at minimum. At maximum, learn to master it and you’ll never answer to anyone again (well, other than your readers, who are the most important part of the equation).
BIR: What has been your business plan as far as marketing your novels go? How much money have you spent on marketing/publicity and what have your spent it on?
BJG: I could likely write a book on this alone.
In short, I spare no expense on the production and marketing of my books. I hope that shows.
One of the reasons I went on the entrepreneur path was specifically for this—to be free and have the resources to fund my own books if and when I finally decided to get back in that saddle.
Now, with the surprising success of The Sleepwalker, I’m even more driven to see how far I can take it. I don’t mind disclosing the production numbers. Between my developmental editor (who generally is with me all the way to print for any minute changes I make), my copy/line editor, my then critique editor, and finally my typesetter, I spend roughly $4,000 per title to have them market ready. This can be done for far less money likely by at least half as to not discourage people just starting out, but I would again recommend not skimping.
Having “auditioned” several editors, I can say, and this isn’t to disrespect anyone, but there is a clear difference in freelance editors who work with the big five and freelance editors who do not in terms of both skill and knowledge. That isn’t to say a newer editor isn’t extremely talented, but the skill and understanding of narrative structure for a marketable book is almost hammered into editors who work with the upper echelon of publishing companies; or else, the publishers would hire someone else, so they have to be at the top of their game for each title—these are the people you want to hire…
This is not the area to get cheap, which is why I then hire other editors with specific skills as all those weird little typos become invisible after one has read a manuscript a few times. So I like fresh eyes for the copy editor…
As far as the marketing approach and budget?
My marketing budgets, especially for The Sommelier, are nuts for an indie author and borderline irresponsible. This mostly ties into personal lifestyle choices. Some people my age get into hobbies and spend lots on golf equipment, kayaking, photography—whatever. My hobby just happens to be writing and trying to sell as many copies as I can, so I don’t mind putting more resources into it.
But this is again due to the fact that I have other businesses that I own working in my benefit, so I can then take profits from those entities and fund KDK 12 (my imprint). All of this expenditure is also a tax write off and legitimate business expense, so spending more can actually be a bit of a benefit if one understands how to manipulate the financial part of a business…
So how do you cut through and get noticed?
I despise social media. But I also understand the concept of necessary evils. So after having zero social media presence until basically early 2020, I then started serializing The Sleepwalker on Instagram.
It started slow with a daily 200 word-ish post and an accompanying photo that I’d include from something I’d Photoshopped (badly) that was indicative of the post. I was also keen on making sure the hashtags were honed to attract people who might be interested in the topic. I then made an oath that no matter the response that I’d make a daily post for 60 days—no exceptions. And right about the 40-day marker, I was thinking, “OK, this is going nowhere.” Then all of a sudden, people started sharing it around, more followers every day, comments, likes, etc.
So then a friend taught me some After Effects and I moved on from photos to animated, parallaxed photos. Then it got even more attention…Then due to my love and curiosity of cinema, I started putting together very amateur-ish video promos that were essentially Ed Wood-level in their B-film hilarity.
But each inception caught more attention. So by the time The Sleepwalker was released, I went from zero social outreach to roughly 6,500 organic followers across all available channels. Which isn’t crazy impressive, but forget about impressive. Everything takes time, and 6,500 people to engage with sure beats zero. I think now with The Sommeiler, there is nearly an 11,000-person potential engagement across the channels I’ve been building out. Just hammer on it bit-by-bit, day-by-day, and you’ll get something out of it.
The Sommelier budget is roughly 3x my Sleepwalker budget due to it doing well. I figured this was my chance to really cement what I accidentally achieved with Book One, and I should just go for it. I was even able to attract the efforts of a higher level publicist who doesn’t generally take on self-published authors, but I engaged them, showed them what I was able to achieve on my lonesome and suddenly we were engaged.
This is what I’m trying to get across. Starting from zero is not the worst place to be as there is only up potential. Just keep at it, people love to help out a passionate person who can produce and demonstrate results. Then they get to be a part of your success story.
So this time around, with marginally better resources and contacts, I wanted to expand on this and produce even more engaging content for the release. I like the idea of the book being the cornerstone of the experience and then the wacky videos being more fun supplemental entertainment.
After moving to Miami, I was fortunate enough to meet some University of Miami film grad students, one of whom is their star student in digital visual effects and another in their cinematography department. So with this next go-round, I’m able to get near Hollywood level special effects at art student prices. It works great. They get interesting videos for their portfolio and decent pay, I get near-realistic looking digital zombies to hopefully engage more potential readers.
I’ve had the damnedest time getting any momentum on Twitter and Facebook, so I tried to focus more on TikTok this time around. Although the early numbers are encouraging, the success of which remains to be seen. Since launch though, we have tens of thousands of views and nearly 5,000 followers on the Nosferatu Conspiracy page. Pre-orders are pretty high as well, but I’m having a hard time actually saying it’s due to the TikTok page. Bare minimum, it’s not hurting.
BIR: Is the Nosferatu Conspiracy going to be a trilogy? If so, can you give me a tease for Book Three?
The Nosferatu Conspiracy is absolutely a trilogy with The Last Seraph being the concluding installment. Possibly, a late 2023 release but most likely Mar.-June 2024. Pre-marketing is quite intensive with these whacky videos I produce, and the scope of what payoffs I need to work out for Book Three are a bit daunting currently until I better understand the narrative landscape.
BIR: Wow. Great talk, Brian. Thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts on indie publishing. Tons of great information here for aspiring writers. Best of luck with the next book—I’m looking forward to reading it!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.